Born into a culture that persistently denied African Americans their right to freedom, Nance Legins Costley proved herself to be a woman of singular bravery and resilience when she took an important public stand for her own legal emancipation, setting a precedent that helped numerous others secure their own freedom.
Nance was born at the end of 1813, in the home of Thomas Cox in Kaskaskia. The land that Cox’s house stood was located in the capital of the Illinois Territory, and five years after her birth, it would become part of the state capital of Illinois. Kaskaskia and the rest of Illinois had been ceded by the British to the United States in 1783, in the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Congress had established a government for the new territory in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which, among other provisions, prohibited slavery. When Illinois was admitted to the union in 1818, its constitution mandated that slavery must not be introduced in the new state.
The reality, however, was much more complicated. The French colonists who had settled present-day Kaskaskia in the eighteenth-century had brought enslaved people from the Caribbean to the Illinois Country as early as 1720, and the practice of slavery was quickly integrated into the French agrarian society of the area. One colonial settler, Philip François Renault, intended to establish a mining company in the area and acquired a large number of enslaved people in the West Indies to help with his enterprise. The mining endeavor never materialized, but the enslaved people that he brought to Kaskaskia and the surrounding area became the ancestors of the “French slaves” of the region. In 1752, 41% of households in Illinois owned at least one enslaved person; in Kaskaskia, enslaved people of African descent made up 40% of the population. Native Americans were also enslaved by the French. Nearly a thousand enslaved people lived in Illinois when the British took over after the French and Indian War in 1763, and the new government allowed the practice to continue.
Even after the Northwest Ordinance went into effect, the territorial government did not enforce the ordinance’s prohibition of slavery, and on at least one occasion, four residents of Kaskaskia organized a petition to the government to allow slavery in the region. (The petition was not recognized.) Even as laws were enacted to restrict or forbid slavery in Illinois, loopholes were exploited to allow the practice to continue. The “French slaves,” descendants of the enslaved people brought to Illinois by French colonial settlers, continued to be legally enslaved, a practice that persisted until 1845. Enslaved people were also legally allowed to be brought to Illinois from slave states on year-long temporary (but renewable) work contracts. The territory also codified a system of indentured servitude into law — a system which allowed for slavery in all but name.
A new law setting out the terms of indentured servitude for people who had been enslaved in other territories was legally adopted in the territory in 1807, when Illinois was still formally part of the Indiana Territory. The law’s provisions set out a system that permitted slave owners to retain people as property, even within the confines of an area that legally prohibited slavery. The act allowed owners to bring enslaved people from other parts of the country to Illinois and maintain them as “indentured servants.” For example, an owner who purchased an enslaved “negro or mulatto” in Alabama could bring that person to Kaskaskia. Within 30 days, that owner would need to bring that enslaved person to the local county clerk, where he or she would have to consent to a contract of indenture that specified the length of time he or she would serve the owner.
But although the system nominally sounds like it hinged on the consent of the enslaved person, there were caveats built into the act that made it clear that the enslaved person ultimately lacked any power in the transaction. The lengths of contracts, for example, differed based on age. If the enslaved person was older than 15, the contract could be as long as 99 years. But the act also included regulations for the indenture of children, even babies. If he was a child younger than 15, he could only be contracted until he was 35; a female child younger than 15 could be contracted until she reached the age of 32. The contracts extended to the next generation, too. Any children born to an indentured person were also required to serve the owner for several decades after their birth; girls had to serve until they were 28, and boys had to serve until they were 30. And declining to agree to the contract didn’t mean freedom. If the enslaved person objected to the indenture, the owner then had 60 days to take the enslaved person out of Illinois, removing them to a part of the country where slavery was permitted in order to retain ownership of the person. The act allowed an owner to physically punish their indentured servants (“with stripes” — i.e., with a whip) for infractions like laziness or misbehavior. And, confirming that indentured servants were essentially slaves called by another name, an indentured servant’s contract could be sold to a different owner without his or her consent.
Numerous indentured servitude contracts were registered at courthouses in Illinois in the years that followed. In 1810, for example, a man named Nathaniel Green indentured three servants at the courthouse in Randolph County. Green lived in an area known as Clear Creek (which is now part of Union County). He operated a ferry across the Mississippi — an enterprise that could certainly have benefited from extra hands. Green traveled to Louisiana and returned with three people, indenturing all three of them according to the requirements set out by the act. The eldest, a black man named Randall Legins, was 38 years old. Green indentured him on April 13, 1810, for a term of 16 years. On the same date, he indentured Anachy, a 26-year-old black woman, for 25 years. And two months earlier, in February 1810, he had brought Charles to the county courthouse, indenturing him for a term of 35 years. The record notes starkly that “Charles was five months old at time entry was made.” Green had indentured the baby, who was not yet old enough to walk or talk, to the maximum term legally allowed for a black male child.
Randall, Anachy, and Charles lived in Nathaniel Green’s household in Clear Creek until his death, which happened around 1812. Because all three of them were legally bound to him, they were included in the contents of his estate after he died. His estate papers, probated in Johnson County, reveal what happened to them afterward. A man named John Earthman bought “one negro boy, Charlie” from the estate for $220. Randall and Anachy were sold, too — and the record of the sale reveals that the pair had had a child together while living in Green’s household. They were sold along with “a child named Reuben” to Thomas Cox for the total sum of $770. Although Reuben had never signed an indenture contract of his own, under the terms of Illinois’s indentured servitude laws, he was legally bound to serve his mother’s owner until he turned 30, and he could be sold at any point during that time.
Randall, Anachy, and Reuben’s new owner had grand aspirations. Born in Kentucky, Thomas Cox had moved with his family to Kaskaskia around 1810. He had quickly sought out positions of power in local government, taking a job in the local sheriff’s office, helping to enumerate the population of Randolph County for the 1810 census, and working as a land surveyor. He’d also served with the military during the War of 1812, and he continued to hold a commissioned rank in the Illinois militia. Cox was a single man in his mid-twenties when he purchased the contracts of the Legins family from the Green estate. But he wasn’t the only person living in his household. Following the death of his father, his widowed mother and siblings often lived either with him or just nearby. Supporting them may have been financially taxing — and Thomas Cox was never very good at managing money. In February 1814, Cox sold the Legins family, which had expanded in late 1813 to include one more member: a two-month-old girl, unnamed on the recorded bill of sale, who was almost certainly Randall and Anachy’s daughter, Nance. She had been born in Cox’s boarding house in Kaskaskia while the Territorial Assembly was meeting there.
Like her elder brother, Reuben, Nance was not indentured herself — but like Reuben, the fact that she was born in the Cox household to indentured parents meant that she was also contracted to serve their master. Under the terms of Illinois’s servitude laws, Nance was bound to serve until she was 28, an age she wouldn’t reach until around 1841. The two-month-old baby was sent in the winter of 1814 with her father, mother, and three-year-old brother to live in the household of the largest slaveholder in Randolph County: Kaskaskia merchant William Morrison. Although Cox had paid more than $700 for Randall, Anachy, and Reuben only a short time before, he sold the family, including baby Nance, to Morrison for only $400.
The Legins joined a large and growing group of enslaved people living in the Morrison household. The 1810 census noted that eight people of color (one indentured servant and seven slaves) were part of the household, and by 1820, 20 people of color were living with the Morrisons. When the Legins family were purchased in February 1813, there were at least ten people of color living in the household, and thanks to the servitude records kept by Illinois courthouses, we know their names and ages. Isidor and Mathew had been purchased by Morrison from Jean Dumoulin in St. Clair County in 1805, when they were 14 and 12 years old, respectively. Three years later, a 27-year-old woman named Phebe had signed an indenture contract with Morrison, exchanging four years of servitude for ten cents. In September 1811, Morrison had indentured three more servants: a 35-year-old man named Charles (for 25 years), a 20-year-old woman named Peggy (for 30 years), and a 16-year-old man named Sarrah (for 60 years). That October, he also indentured 37-year-old Isaac for a term of 25 years, and a month later, a 16-year-old woman named Dunky signed an indenture contract with Morrison for 40 years of service. In the spring of 1812, a 16-year-old woman named Rachel had been sold to Morrison by his brother, Robert, for an unknown sum of money. And about a week after he purchased the contracts of the Legins family, Morrison also purchased a 16-year-old man named Reuben from Robert, paying $400 for the teenager.
Morrison’s mercantile enterprise was one of the most thriving businesses in Kaskaskia, supplying goods to establishments as far north as St. Louis and as far south as Cape Girardeau and New Madrid. M. Scott Heerman, a historian who specializes in the history of slavery and servitude in Illinois, describes Morrison as a man “who enjoyed unrivaled success in Illinois’s shipping economy,” explaining that “Morrison spent years amassing a bound labor force.” According to E.J. Montague’s 1859 history of Randolph County, the wealth that Morrison amassed enabled him to build “a large stone mansion, where he displayed hospitality in a princely style.” His family was large and growing larger in 1813; he had seven living children from his first marriage to Euphrasine Huberdeau, who had died in April 1812. In the summer of 1813, he had married his second wife, Eliza Sebor Bissell, in St. Louis. She had given birth to her first child, Mary Jane, in 1815, and five more children followed. Remembered in local history books as a gregarious, sociable man who loved to entertain visitors in his spacious home, Morrison is often lauded for his success. But that success wouldn’t have been possible without the people that Morrison purchased and contracted to work for him. Morrison’s entire life, both business and personal, was built and maintained using labor from enslaved people and indentured servants.
As a businessman, Morrison was used to brokering transactions, and he frequently moved, rented, and sold the slaves and servants in his possession. Charles and Peggy, who were both living in Morrison’s household when the Legins family arrived in 1814, were sold to Moses Short that December. Morrison also sent enslaved and indentured men and women to work in the households of family members. For example, Dunky, who had been indentured to Morrison in 1811, was later given to Andrew Hay, the husband of Morrison’s daughter, Emilie. (Dunky was later taken by Hay to St. Louis, where she filed a formal petition for her freedom in the courts in 1834.) Although several of Morrison’s transactions were recorded in formal court records, many more of them were informal deals, in which Morrison loaned enslaved and indentured people out on temporary contracts in exchange for cash. At some point, Nance Legins was removed from the Morrison household and delivered back to Thomas Cox and his family, but records don’t show us precisely what kind of transaction was completed or what compensation was provided in exchange for her. Her parents were also eventually delivered back to the Cox household.
In 1815, Thomas Cox had started a family of his own. He married a woman named Roba Bartlett, who lived on a farm across the Mississippi in Ste. Genevieve. After their wedding, the Coxes opened a hotel in Kaskaskia, an enterprise that would certainly have required additional help. In a foreshadowing of problems that would nearly ruin him later, Thomas also ran advertisements for a tavern, perhaps connected to the hotel, in the summer of 1816. Soon after, Thomas and Roba also started a family. Their first son, Daniel, was born in Jonesboro in September 1816. The Coxes had moved to the capital of newly-established Union County that summer, and Thomas was appointed Justice of the Peace there in April 1818. Kaskaskia, though, is where someone with political aspirations wanted to be in the summer of 1818. That July, a convention met in Kaskaskia to frame a constitution for the new State of Illinois.
On August 3, delegates from each of the territory’s counties held a meeting at Kaskaskia. According to John Reynolds, who became one of the first Justices of the Illinois State Supreme Court, the delegates were largely in agreement over various constitutional issues, but significant questions were raised about slavery. A considerable number of delegates owned enslaved or indentured people, including Jesse B. Thomas of St. Clair County (who was president pro tempore of the convention), Benjamin Stephenson of Madison County, Caldwell Cairns of Monroe County, Elias Kane of Randolph County, Conrad Will and James Hall of Jackson County, Michael Jones and Leonard White of Gallatin County, and Willis Hargrave of White County. Although Illinois entered the union as a free state, the committee sought compromise on the issue of slavery, permitting the practice to continue freely in the salt mines at Shawneetown, grandfathering in existing slaves (and only freeing their children when they reached adulthood), and retaining the territory’s system of indentured servitude. The constitution was signed at the end of August, and Illinois officially became a state in December 1818, around the time that Nance Legins turned five years old. The first governor of the state, Kaskaskia farmer Shadrach Bond, owned numerous slaves; so did the state’s first lieutenant governor, Pierre Menard, who was also a large landowner in Kaskaskia.
From his home in Kaskaskia, Thomas Cox was in the middle of the excitement as the new state government was developed. He was elected as a state senator from Union County. He was also active in lobbying for the election of Ninian Edwards, who had previously served as governor of the Illinois Territory, as one of the new US Senators from Illinois. (Like Cox and so many others in the new government, Edwards was a slave owner. During his term as territorial governor, the legislature had passed a bill to end the territory’s indentured servitude system; Edwards vetoed the bill.) Edwards had already been elected to a very short initial term as senator, and he was in Washington as opposition began to grow to his election to a full six-year term. After he prevailed and was elected in February 1819, Cox wrote to Edwards to inform him of the victory: “You are re-elected to the United States Senate for six years, which has completely placed you out of the reach of your enemies … I wish I was with you one hour, just to give you a history of matters and things.” Cox signed the letter “Your friend and humble servant.” In the midst of all of this political excitement, Roba Cox gave birth to her second child, a daughter named Florida, in Kaskaskia in January 1819.
Florida was the last member of the family to be born in Kaskaskia. Because of the constant threat of flooding in Kaskaskia, a new state capital was established at Vandalia. Cox, as a member of the legislature, relocated with it. The rest of the family, including Cox’s widowed mother, Jane, and his wife and children, came along with him. So did the enslaved and indentured people in his household: according to the 1820 census, that included “four slaves or servants.” Randall Legins was no longer a part of the Cox household; he had died in 1817. Carl Adams notes that Anachy was sold by Thomas Cox in 1820 to a Kentucky lawyer. The number of slaves or servants residing in the household definitely did include Nance, and another of the servants was a young black girl called Dice, who is often described as Nance’s younger sister. The two girls, who were around the ages of seven and five, were trained to work in the Cox’s new boarding house, the Columbian Hotel, which was situated across the street from the new state capitol building. Carl Adams, Nance’s biographer, writes that the time she spent working in the hotel, in close proximity to men having conversations about the political questions of the day, was an important formative period for the girl, explaining that the “leading issues of the day were land titles and slavery” — both of which were important topics for Thomas Cox and his colleagues. Cox supported an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to call a new constitutional convention for the state — one that would allow the constitution to be rewritten to legalize slavery in Illinois. Debates about the legality of slavery were commonplace, especially so close to the center of power in the state. “And,” Adams adds, “Nance was listening.”
In 1822, the Cox household moved again, this time to the newly-created town of Springfield in Sangamon County. Ninian Edwards had recommended Cox for the role of register in the new United States Land Office in Springfield, a position that was confirmed by an official appointment from President Monroe in January 1823. Cox’s biographer, Harvey Reid, explains the reasons why he was chosen for the job; he had become “a heavy speculator in lands,” and the “knowledge which he obtained in his surveying tours gave him unusual opportunities for selection.” He had amassed quite a lot of property, including land “in southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas in the region of the ‘sunken lands’ and in southern Illinois.”
When the Cox family moved to Springfield, Nance and Dice came with them. Zimri Enos, son of Pascal P. Enos (Cox’s partner as receiver at the land office), recalled in his memoirs, “Some of the first settlers of Sangamon county brought with them one or more slaves. One of the Kirkpatricks brought with him his colored boy Titus; Col. Thomas Cox, two girls, Nance and Dice; Daniel Cutright his boy Major; Dr. Todd, his colored woman Phoebe, and George Forquer his boy Smith. These colored persons were known and called by the surnames of their masters, the same as in slave states.” As he had in Kaskaskia and in Vandalia, Cox opened a hotel in Springfield, and Nance and Dice worked in that establishment. He also opened two other businesses: a mill and a whiskey distillery. Zimri Enos writes that the distillery proved to be Cox’s downfall in Springfield: “He acquired so great a passion for, and indulged to such an extent in liquor, that he became totally incapacitated and indifferent to his business and suffered all his property to be covered with mortgages, judgments, liens, and executions.” Reid sighs that the “extensive land speculations in which Colonel Cox had engaged for several years, together with unwise endorsements for friends into which his generous nature had led him, culminated in financial embarrassments from which he was unable to free himself.”
Simply put, Cox had speculated too wildly and drunk too freely, and the combination had landed him in debt to far too many people. Even old allies began to call in their debts. Reid noted, “Most of his property passed out of his hands by legal proceedings and otherwise — Governor Ninian Edwards being a creditor who pressed his claims in the courts.” Cox was fired from his position at the land office in January 1827 for official misconduct. Unsurprisingly, he had mismanaged the office’s money as well as that of his personal creditors. And then, two wealthy citizens of Springfield, both of whom had loaned Cox large sums of money, decided to take back their investments from Cox by any means possible. Adams writes that the local sheriff, John Taylor, and a gun dealer, Nathan Cromwell, planned to divide Cox’s property between themselves to satisfy his debts to them. Cromwell won a judgment against Cox in the local courts at the end of January 1827. Taylor filed suit to take over the mill and the distillery. And the two men each decided that they would take over the contracts of one of Cox’s indentured servants.
In July 1827, the local coroner, John Howard, executed a court order to auction off Cox’s possessions, including livestock, land — and Nance and Dice. Heerman notes that “Cox held Nance under a servitude contract that bound her to Cox until she reached age twenty-eight” — because she was the child of a person who had been indentured to him. Dice was presumably bound to Cox under similar terms. Adams writes, “There is no record of whether Dice said nor did anything other than submit to her fate” at the auction, where she was purchased by John Taylor for $150. (Dice began using the surname “Taylor” after the auction, and in August 1835 she married Major Cutright, another indentured servant who had been brought to Springfield by an early settler.) The official record notes that Cromwell purchased Nance for a dollar more — $151 — and “the said Coroner in pursuance of said sale did deliver said Nance to the said Cromwell … [and] the said Nance voluntarily and of her own free will and consent did agree to go with the said Cromwell to his place of residence.”
Although the official record suggests that Nance submitted meekly to her fate, the reality was much different. Cox’s mother, Jane, later testified that Nance had been shackled and became physically ill and distraught while in chains. Heerman relates that, after Howard sold Nance to Cromwell, Jane “overheard Cromwell ask ‘Nance if she would go and live with him and said Nance refused and presented she would not.’” When she resisted, Jane stated that Howard tied Nance up and confined her in “the old salt house.” Adams explains that Nance was imprisoned for six days in “the community salt shed,” which “was used to preserve meat and fish” and “was not intended as a prison.” After nearly a week spent confined in “the small, hot, and windowless shed,” an unknown person opened the door to let Nance out while Springfield was up in arms about the threat of a possible Indian attack. Nance returned to the only home she’d ever known — the residence of the Cox family. Jane Cox testified that, at some point afterward, “Cromwell took her off.”
Following the sale — the only recorded public slave auction ever held in the state of Illinois — thirteen-year-old Nance took a remarkable step, filing suit in Sangamon County Circuit Court to attempt to secure her freedom. During the hearing of the case, filed in October 1827 as Nance, a Negro Girl v. Nathan Cromwell, Nance testified that the official record of the auction was patently false. “It is not true that I, Nance, voluntarily and of my own free will, agreed to go with Cromwell to his house in Sangamotown,” she stated, “nor is it true I still live with Cromwell by my own choice.” She further testified that she had “never before or since made any contract with Cromwell,” and firmly argued that she “was now detained and restrained of her personal liberty against her will and consent.”
The circuit court referred the case to the Illinois State Supreme Court in Vandalia. Before the court would proceed with the case, however, Judge Samuel Lockwood asked for proof of Nance’s age, to establish whether she was an adult or a minor. Because the records that would establish Nance’s age were in the archives in Kaskaskia, the case was delayed until her birth records could be produced. Adams states that Nance lived in the Taylor household with Dice during the delay. When the trial resumed in December 1828, the court found that Nance’s sale to Cromwell had been legal. Heerman explains, “The supreme court of Illinois upheld Nance’s sale to Cromwell and concluded that Nance freely consented to be sold at public auction as chattel. In sanctioning Nance’s status as human property, the court ignored the coercion — the chains and threats of violence — that compelled her submission.” Nance was ordered to continue to serve in Cromwell’s household. Meanwhile, Thomas Cox and his family slowly worked to recover from his staggering fall. He served in the Black Hawk War and eventually moved to Iowa, where he found his way back into territorial politics.
Nance’s time in the Cox household had officially ended, but her journey to freedom was far from over. Shortly after the court decided the case in favor of Cromwell and those who had assisted the sale, she moved once again to unfamiliar territory. In 1830, Cromwell and his wife, Ann Eliza, became early settlers of the town of Pekin in Tazewell County. Ann Eliza died in the early 1830s, and Cromwell decided to relocate once more, this time to Texas. For Nance, the prospect of moving once more, this time to a slave state, was horrifying. According to Adams, she decided to take her fate into her own hands. In 1836, she became pregnant. Adams notes that “Cromwell was sixty-four years old and traveling with a single, black twenty-three year old slave who was a mother-to-be would attract too much attention.” As abandoning Nance, a contracted servant, was illegal, Cromwell convinced one of his business partners, a local merchant named David Bailey, to sign a temporary contract so that Nance could work in his store. Bailey, whose father-in-law was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, signed a promissory note in exchange for Nance, agreeing to pay around $400 for her temporary contract — but only delivering the money when Cromwell produced the documents that proved that Nance was a legal indentured servant. Cromwell left for Texas before giving Bailey that proof, and he died in St. Louis before his journey could be completed.
Bailey, an abolitionist, was not prepared to force Nance to serve in his household or place of business. After she was “purchased” by Bailey in 1836, Nance began living an essentially independent life. In October 1840, she married Benjamin Costley, a free man of color living in Pekin. By this time, she had three children: Amanda, William Henry, and Eliza Jane. Even so, her freedom was still conditional. When Cromwell’s son, William, decided to compel Bailey to pay the $400 he allegedly owed for Nance, more lawsuits followed. In Tazewell County Circuit Court in September 1839, Bailey argued that his “purchase” of Nance was never valid at all, because Cromwell had failed to provide proof that she was legally bound to serve him. The judge disagreed, confirming yet again that Nance was a possession that could be exchanged, and ordered Bailey to pay more than $400 to Cromwell’s estate. Bailey was struggling financially, and he decided to appeal the verdict to the Illinois State Supreme Court. Once again, Nance’s liberty was in the hands of the highest court in the state. For legal counsel, Bailey turned to a friend with whom he had served in Black Hawk War: Abraham Lincoln.
In the summer of 1841, as he prepared to argue Bailey and Nance’s case in court, Lincoln was 32 years old. Recently re-elected to his fourth term in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln had also just broken off his engagement to Mary Todd. He was absorbed in the law practice he shared in Springfield with Stephen T. Logan. (Interestingly, Logan represented Cromwell’s estate in the appeal.) His feelings about the institution of slavery were complex and evolving. In 1837, he wrote an opinion stating both his opposition to slavery and his dislike of the ardent abolitionist movement. A year later, he gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield in which he discussed the dangers that slavery posed to the nation, warning that the institution had the potential to corrupt the United States through the lawlessness and disorder of pro-slavery mobs. He supported (in theory) the notion of emancipating slaves and transporting them to another country, where they could start over on “free soil.” (In Lincoln’s presidential administration, John Willis Menard did work researching the feasibility of such a scheme.)
Scholars often point to his involvement in Nance’s case as one of the formative moments for young Lincoln on the subject of race and slavery, though he served later as counsel both for a man who helped an enslaved person escape and for a slave holder. In preparing for Bailey v. Cromwell, Lincoln researched a long list of legal precedents, citing previous cases (like Livingston v. Bain, which dealt with the sale of a black man who asserted his freedom) as well as the Illinois Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. On Friday, July 9, 1841, Lincoln appeared before the state supreme court in the new capital city of Springfield to argue the case. The session was held in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church before four justices: Samuel D. Lockwood, Theophilus W. Smith, Thomas Ford, and Sidney Breese. Both Lockwood and Smith had been on the bench to decide Nance’s previous court case in 1828, while Ford and Breese (who had spent a good deal of his early life in Kaskaskia) were new additions to the court.
Two weeks after Lincoln and Logan argued the case, the justices handed down their opinion, which was delivered by Sidney Breese. The court sided with Bailey and Nance, finding that the onus to prove that Nance was indentured, not free, had fallen on Cromwell, who had failed to provide said proof. Breese wrote that Nance had been “asserting and declaring all the time that she was free” since arriving in Bailey’s household. He reiterated that an earlier court decision held that “the presumption of law was, in this state, that every person was free, without regard to color. This presumption must be allowed in this case, that the girl, which was the consideration of the note, was free, and it was incumbent on the plaintiff [Cromwell] to rebut that presumption, by showing some legal claim to her services, which, partaking of the nature of property, he could sell and transfer.” Nance had lived like a free person since arriving in Bailey’s household, and for the court, that was significant. Breese asserted, “The girl being free, and asserting her freedom in the only modes she could, by doing as she pleased, making purchases, contracting debts, and controlling her own motions, could not be the subject of a sale.” He ended his opinion with a simple, declarative statement: “The sale of a free person is illegal.” On Friday, July 23, 1841, Nance was finally, legally free.
Sidney Breese went on to a long and illustrious career as a judge and a representative, serving as United States Senator for Illinois from 1843 until 1849, and later returning to the Illinois State Supreme Court as Chief Justice in the 1860s. One wonders, though, whether he might have had any glimmer of recognition of Nance Legins Costley from his earlier life. He was present in Kaskaskia when Illinois became a state in 1818, serving as an assistant to Secretary of State Elias Kane, and in Vandalia when the capital was moved in 1819. Perhaps most interesting, though, is a family connection. Breese’s wife, Eliza, was the daughter of William Morrison of Kaskaskia — one of the men who had once owned Nance and her family.
For Nance, daily life as a free person continued much as it had before the supreme court decision. She remained in Pekin with her husband, Benjamin, and their family. Eventually the couple had five more children: Mary Jane, Ann, Harriet, Leander, and James. Life wasn’t easy, though, for a free black person living in Illinois. Restrictive laws, often called “black codes,” had been in place since the 1820s. A free black man or woman was required to register at the local courthouse, show paperwork confirming that he or she was free, and, if he or she had been born in another state, file a $1000 bond. (The bond was, it was said, needed to ensure that the person would not become a burden on the taxpayer.) During the first half of the nineteenth-century, Illinois restricted the movements of free black people in the state to an incredible degree. They were prohibited from testifying in court or bringing suit against a white person; they could not vote; they could not gather in public in groups of three or more; and they could not own firearms or weapons. They were also required to carry freedom papers on their person at all times. In 1853, even after slavery and indentured servitude had been abolished in the state, the laws were made even more stringent. According to the new law, a free black person from another state could not stay in Illinois for more than 10 days. Those who overstayed the limit were subject to imprisonment and fines. The 1853 law was, ironically, sponsored by John A. Logan, a state legislator from Murphysboro who would later gain fame as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. The government of Illinois made it clear that they did not want to welcome new people of color to their state; the law essentially prohibited any new free black citizens from settling in Illinois. The black codes remained in effect until 1865.
Nance embarked on a new life of freedom in a state that wanted to continue to regulate as much of her existence as possible, but she and Benjamin built a successful life for themselves and their children in Pekin. She ensured that her children received the education that had been denied her; census records showed that the Costley children attended school. One of her sons, William Henry, who served in the Civil War, later became one of the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” while another, Leander, became one of the first Pullman porters. But after a life tracked meticulously by legal and court records, Nance’s later years slipped privately into history. We know that Nance lived to see her case become an important precedent in freedom suits for others, and she also witnessed the man who had successfully argued for her own freedom become president and emancipate all enslaved people in the country. Historians haven’t been able to come to a solid consensus, however, about where she lived in her final years or precisely where and when she died. After a life of constant surveillance by the state, the courts, and the men who bought and sold her, Nance was able finally to live quietly and freely, on her own terms, outside of the glare of public scrutiny.
In 1870, a City Directory of Pekin, Illinois, paid tribute to one of their longtime citizens: “With the arrival of Major Cromwell … came a slave. That slave still lives in Pekin and is now known, as she has been known for nearly half a century … [as] ‘Black Nancy.’ She came here a chattel, with ‘no rights that a white man was bound to respect.’ For more than forty years she has been known here as a ‘negro’ upon whom there was no discount, and her presence and services have been indispensable on many a select occasion. But she has outlived the age of barbarism, and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken, their equality before the law everywhere recognized and her children enjoying the elective franchise.” The enslaved child from Kaskaskia, Illinois, had witnessed remarkable changes during her lifetime, and thanks to her own acts of bravery and persistence, Nance had secured her freedom — and helped transform the world.
Nance Legins Costley was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2019.
Note: this biography quotes copyrighted material from Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed By Abraham Lincoln, Carl Adams, © 2014 (revised 2016). Used with permission of the author.